I do hope you enjoyed the opportunity for a glimpse at the chaos behind the scenes here at theBigNote. I refer to the post from earlier today that quite obviously was not intended to be published and, curiously, wasn’t actually published – there are failsafes that are supposed to ensure such things do not occur, and believe it or not, I tend not to publish draft posts – that would be a bit weird. So I have no idea what occurred, but things being weird, we’ll continue the theme with some forgetful German soldiers,…
…and another with a cat on his head.
Thanks for both posts I enjoyed trying to work out what word x’s represented probably very unsuccessfully but it kept busy while eat breakfast and the photos were very amusing.
For what it’s worth, the second two thirds of the draft post were nothing but the pictures and text I used for the original Stielhandgranate posts from January 1918, nothing new except a single picture at the bottom which is unlikely to appear in the finished post. The first third shows how I build up a new munitions post but at this stage how close to the end result is anyone’s guess – only one of my own examples has made an appearance so far. Incidentally, there’s a lovely M1915 example in the draft post – the picture shows it horizontally – that would once have been mine had the GPO not ‘lost’ it……
I wondered all morning what the x’s meant… and now I’m puzzled by these pictures. Hm.
I may well delve into the ‘Germans being weird’ folder again at some point…….
In fact I have – see new post.
It’s always interesting to get a glimpse into the mind of a genius, and with that in mind, they do say there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Unfortunately I think these chaps are the wrong side of it
I almost feel there’s a compliment tucked in there somewhere. I refer also to my reply (edit: now replies) to Filip.
And there is, of course. I don’t think anyone who reads the posts on this site would deny that there has been some real genius behind some of the discoveries that you have made. I find your work remarkable. My hat, as ever, is off to you sir.
I think, on this occasion, rather than some smart-ass response, I shall simply say thank you. Sincerely.
Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour….and granddads pants !
Grandad’s pants indeed – I’m not so sure one or two haven’t got grenades stashed in them……actually, let’s not go there……
I don’t suppose the Germans in the first photo were the ones who were captured by the Japanese and encouraged to do lots of therapeutic activities to occupy themselves while in captivity? Rather sweet anyway,
Changing the subject to aeroplanes, if that isn’t exceeding our brief, does anyone know if there are any bits of a Gotha still kicking around?
I’ll answer this one first – there have been bits of Gotha on Ebay over the years – the last items I saw were a few Gotha fragments etc, from a crash on 7th December 1917.
I hope you don’t mind me also inflicting an essay on you, but do we agree/disagree with the following analysis of the causes/course of the Great War, from my book “The Bigger Picture”?
War is the locomotive of history (Leon Trotsky, though the saying has also been attributed to Marx), its requirements, and its consequences, speeding up the process of change and the pace of events. It determines the way in which things happen and means they occur a lot sooner than they otherwise might have done. It can bring catastrophe even upon nations who are victorious on the battlefield, and their allies. These things are as fundamental a historical truth as the tendency for individuals and organisations to get into positions of power largely because the alternatives are worse, as much as one’s own merits. It was the cost of fighting the Seven Years’ War (for her a resounding military success) which led Britain to levy heavy taxes upon her American colonies; their resentment was a fundamental cause of the War of Independence. France later got her own back for her defeats in 1756-63 by backing the rebels, but the financial aid she gave them had a crippling effect on her own economy and the resulting hardship − and heavy taxation − helped bring about the Revolution.
The principal cause of war in Europe was most likely to be nationalism, or the response to it. Colonial rivalry might be translated into military conflict on the European mainland, although this in fact never happened, at least not directly in that colonialism outside Europe was the principal deciding factor. There were still territories on the continent whose status was contested. Particular blame for the First World War could perhaps be laid at the door of Otto von Bismarck because of his unification of Germany and what it led to, on the understanding that it is indirect. In order to protect his achievement against a revanchist France, Bismarck, under pressure from hardliners, annexed the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine which it was hoped would serve as a buffer zone in the event of war. This was a mistake which only succeeded in making the latter more likely by fuelling the flames of Gallic ire. At the same time Bismarck attempted to construct a defensive alliance against France with Austria-Hungary and Russia (the Three Emperors’ League). Russia eventually drifted away, but Austria stayed loyal to what became the Dual Entente. Bismarck’s policies had a knock-on effect as it was inevitable that other powers, feeling themselves threatened by the arrangement, would form their own alliances to counter it. France, both fearing further German aggression and hoping some day to recover the lost provinces if war − in which she was unlikely to triumph on her own − did ever break out, joined with Britain in the Entente Cordiale, ending for the foreseeable future any likelihood that she and her traditional enemy would face each other on the battlefield (the last occasion they had come close to doing so was the Fashoda Incident, an African colonial confrontation, in 1898). Apart from being generally alarmed by the Kaiser’s attitude Britain was seeking an ally against a Germany whose rising naval power threatened her own, and thus her control of the seas and ability to supply the empire from which she derived so much of her power and wealth. In war the German navy could blockade Channel ports and damage Britain’s trade, forcing her to her knees (one reason why British policy had always been to prevent any one power from becoming too dominant on continental Europe). Not that the French navy was likely to be much of an asset, but a land victory against Germany would obviously have a decisive effect on hostilities. In 1907 the Russians came in with the French and British to form the Triple Entente, a rapprochement between Berlin and St Petersburg having failed to occur. London and Paris welcomed them as an additional bulwark against Germany. Russia’s own motive was rivalry with Austria in Eastern Europe, which she regarded as her sphere of influence but which was dominated by the Habsburg Empire. She could pose as a friend of the Empire’s subject peoples, who were becoming increasingly restless for independence, while having her own designs on them. Nationalism became mixed up with power politics, and in 1914 the combination was to prove an explosive one. As with the French over Alsace-Lorraine, Russia did not necessarily seek to provoke a war but knew she had potentially much to gain, in this case regional supremacy, should one occur anyway.
It becomes apparent with hindsight, although the act would have been greatly appreciated at the time, that Germany should have returned Alsace-Lorraine to France around 1900, say, as part of moves towards reconciliation. She had what she wanted, i.e. was a strong and unified nation in a powerful position, and ought now to have joined France in a partnership (hopefully including Britain as well) which would preserve the peace of Europe; there was no further reason for the two countries to be enemies. They should have kissed and made up. The retention of the provinces as part of the Reich was intended to create a buffer zone in the event of war; it certainly made war much more likely in the first place. Unfortunately, the belligerent and uncompromising attitude of Kaiser Wilhelm II ensured they were not returned, whether or not anyone else on the German side thought they should be.
The nationalism issue had two aspects; the centrifugal forces within the Habsburg Empire, which could potentially tear it apart, and Germany’s increasing assertiveness as a power. In terms of the course of events it was the former which played, in the end, the bigger role in causing war. But the latter performed a crucial psychological role, explaining to some extent the spirit in which the conflict was prosecuted. There were nations who went to war in order to acquire new territory, which they had been coveting for some time; it belonged to multi-national empires, the Ottoman and the Habsburg, which many would argue had no moral right to exist since they were frustrating the desire of peoples for independence. The inhabitants of the regions in question might have seen themselves as being liberated. Germany’s position was different. There was no more territory for her to acquire in Africa or Asia, the rich pickings having already been snapped up by others. She could not obtain any in Europe without doing what was illegal and certainly likely to provoke fierce resistance; it would be a matter of annexing sovereign states, or parts of them, without a morally compelling reason. This was why her geopolitical aims, as officially stated, both before and to some extent during the war were confused and ambiguous. Her large navy was essentially a status symbol, a crucial expression of her new power and a sign that she had arrived, meeting the psychological need to be seen as counting for something. The situation can in some ways be compared to that in the Middle East today, with Iran seeking to acquire nuclear power, ostensibly for civil use alone, and Israel attempting to resist this because she sees it as a threat to her own survival. Iran would certainly like to have weapons of mass destruction, whether or not she intends to illegally turn her civil atomic energy programme into a military one, because she resents the fact that within the region only Israel, a tiny country with a population of just a few million, is allowed to have nuclear weapons. It is in her view an offence, a slight. She would not I think be so stupid as to use the weapons against Israel without extreme provocation, despite her aggressive behaviour in the past. Unfortunately, in the case of early twentieth-century Germany, the Kaiser’s conduct made it easier to believe that world domination, by force if necessary, was being actively sought. As so often in history, what people believed was intended mattered more than the actual reality. Once the war was under way, France and Britain thought they might as well teach Germany a lesson.
Under the alliance system, if one of the members of a grouping should be attacked by a member of another (a simple statement of intent would suffice), its allies would declare war on the aggressor. The whole apparatus stemmed from a desire to play safe and seek protection in an uncertain world, plus mutual fear and incomprehension between rival powers. It was something which could prove disastrous in the hands of lesser men than Bismarck and this perhaps more than anything else explains the First World War. Of course you could have seen what was potentially likely to happen, and I am sure many did. The nations of Europe in these years have been aptly compared to members of a chain gang; if one falls he pulls all the others down with him. Whether their rulers could have somehow avoided the conflagration and if so, how, is a complex and possibly unanswerable question. But any attempt at identifying the probable causes of a general European war, and then dealing with them, would to be successful have involved either certain people giving up their nationalist aspirations or certain others refraining from suppressing them; and this I suspect would not have been forthcoming. What made the war possible in the end was the interconnected nature of things.
The discontent of the Hapsburg Empire’s subject races was recognised by the dislikeable but in some ways shrewd and sensible Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne, who, realising that something had to change, favoured the reorganisation of the empire on federal lines with more power devolved to the different national groups. Whether they would have accepted this is uncertain but I suspect it would have been rejected as a mere halfway house which didn’t go far enough. It is also questionable whether Franz Ferdinand, once Emperor, could have carried the measure against opposition from powerful vested interests. In the end the question was overtaken by the war which broke out as an indirect consequence of his assassination in Sarajevo by a Bosnian nationalist on 28th June 1914, and apart from being the occasion for the conflict he is today remembered chiefly for having a pop group named after him (as is Jethro Tull).
Franz Ferdinand’s murderer was sponsored by elements within Serbia, which had achieved independence but felt she still had unfinished business to conclude and supported other nationalist movements within the Empire. Following the assassination Austria demanded that she hand over the perpetrators among other things. She felt she was being bullied and refused. Austria declared war on her whereupon Russia, acting in her defence, declared war on Austria. Germany, as Austria’s ally, declared war on Russia which meant declaring war on France and Britain as well. The German invasion of France was through Belgium, the aim being to knock the French out of the war before the slow-moving Russians could fully mobilise. The Russians were unlikely to be of immediate help to Britain and France on the Western Front, but having to fight a war both there and in the east would strain Germany’s resources and that was what she was trying to avoid. If Russia saw that the contest was going to be a more even one she might pull out. Germany probably banked on Britain staying away − she certainly thought about it − but in the end she didn’t. She felt she would be dishonoured if she avoided her obligations under the 1839 Treaty of London, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality, and was also (more pertinently, as I suspect she herself saw it) afraid that Germany, whatever her ultimate intentions, would see the invasion and occupation of Belgium and France as a fait accompli and use it as the basis for economic and military domination of western and central Europe.
The assassination at Sarajevo, which probably not many people outside Austria were much bothered about, merely provided the trigger for the eruption of volcanic forces which had been seething beneath the surface for years. All the same the way in which Europe let itself be dragged into war in 1914 calls for some explanation. The Marxist view that it arose inevitably from capitalist competition has an element of truth in it; that was one of the volcanic forces. But although such underlying factors may have made war more likely, they cannot by themselves explain why it actually broke out.
I think European statesmen had to accept the implications of the alliance system as otherwise they would have had to reject the whole contemporary mindset with regard to sovereignty and international relations, which they were unwilling to do and perhaps couldn’t have done. The principle applied even though the alliances might in some cases be rather “ententes”, a different matter to some extent, and not as legally binding as has been supposed; and irrespective of whether the foreign policy aims of one partner might be very different from, though not necessarily in conflict with, those of another. The time was not yet right for organisations such as the European Union, which are the only alternative to defensive alliances, designed however (un)successfully to deter aggression, as a way of keeping the peace. That the great conflict occurred essentially because of the logic of the alliance system meant that war aims were often vague. But once the war was under way justifications had to be found for it. These were readily available in the case of Russia and Austria-Hungary; the latter was defending its integrity against the former who, not necessarily for altruistic reasons, acted as liberator of its subject peoples. Germany did not have such a rationale, if imperialism can be called rational, but she could claim that her “encirclement” by Britain, Russia and France (though it was entirely her own fault) excused the acquisition of territory, such as Belgium and Luxembourg in the west, as a buffer against them. If the alliance system made the war inevitable once the fuse had been lit, the invasion of Belgium and even by extension the punishment of civilian resistance by death (though that is more controversial) could then be defended as legitimate military objectives.
Most people didn’t actually want war for its own sake; not quite. Some were jubilant, some fearful even if they concealed their misgivings for patriotic reasons or from a wish not to court unpopularity. But perhaps the dominant element in public, and up to a point official, thinking during the summer of 1914 was one of “Let’s get it over with”. This did not mean that the war was necessarily seen as disagreeable. The perception was as follows. People were aware of the underlying tensions within Europe, and the reasons for them, and all attempts to resolve those issues had failed. On the surface they weren’t too concerned by that. I think they realised, deep down, how absurd the whole business was but felt there wasn’t much to worry about because the war wasn’t likely to last very long. It would be brief, but so destructive given the nature of modern weapons that within a short time either the best man (i.e. one’s own side) would win or the conflict would have a cathartic, purgative effect and by that token would bring about its own end. It would be “all over by Christmas”, or by some point not long after Christmas. Everyone would retire after a while sadder but wiser and resolved to mend their differences with one another. In the meantime the business could be treated as if it was some kind of exciting game. I think only this can explain the “Christmas truce” football match between German and British soldiers on the Western Front in December 1914; a strange, surreal and thoroughly wonderful episode which leaves one crying out “Why couldn’t things have gone on like that?”.
Unfortunately, people failed to realise the true nature and implications of “modern weapons”; that they were actually in an intermediary stage between old ways of fighting and new, one which proved to be by its nature particularly deadly. And the conflict did not prove to be “the war to end all wars”, but rather led within just over twenty years to another. The second was in some ways less terrible than the first, and in others more so. If the first seemed exceptionally awful at the time it happened this was because it was the first; there had been no precedent for anything of its kind.
The trouble with the First World War was that as rumours (often exaggerated) of enemy atrocities spread, and the nature of warfare at this point in history caused it to be static but bloody, hearts were hardened. The squalid living conditions troops had to endure, and for which you could in one sense blame the enemy, brutalised them. Literally, the opposing sides on the Western Front took up entrenched positions from which they could not back down without losing face. Why not then continue to fight for King and Country, or for the glorious German Empire, and gain whatever you could out of the business including perhaps, for the victor, new territory and/or economic domination of Europe; going beyond the necessary honouring of treaty obligations. In this climate the chances of peace moves meeting with success were slight.
The current state of technology affected the nature and course of the conflict and also the way warfare was regarded for some time afterwards. Criticisms of the Allied generals’ conduct of affairs are not entirely just. Both sides were fighting the first modern war, or equally it could be argued that warfare was at that time going through a transitory phase; thus it was inevitable to some extent that the military leaders did not know what they were doing. Even where they did it would for the foreseeable future make little difference to the outcome of hostilities nor diminish the horror of apparently senseless slaughter. Machine guns could kill people in large numbers, resulting in a stalemate with the combatants returning to their trenches after each engagement with many lives lost but little or no ground gained, or shells turn dugouts into seas of mud where a soldier might drown. But the tank and the aeroplane were in their relative infancy and although by 1918 the Allies were beginning to learn how to use them in combination with one another and the infantry, they had had not yet been developed to the extent where they could give war the degree of mobility it needed to be in some respects (I stress the reservation) less awful. Had the war continued for another year or two, this might have happened (probably bringing about a speedy victory for the Allies given the considerable lead they enjoyed in tanks). But in the intervening period there would have been still more sickening carnage. As it was, we had to wait until the Second World War (or its dress rehearsal, the Spanish Civil War) for tanks and planes to revolutionise battle. And even then, though they made possible the rapid success of Hitler’s blitzkrieg they could not prevent war still being a horrendous business, one that could leave people permanently scarred in body and/or mind, especially when the reversal of gains was bitterly resisted. Returning to the world of 1914, the reason why the western powers became bogged down, literally or otherwise, in the trenches of France and Flanders was that there had not been a major war in Europe, not that affected the whole continent, for approximately a hundred years and this was the first time generals had had to manage large modern armies (swollen by population increase) on such a geographic scale. Mistakes were made, and the armies stalled. They also, thanks to the railways, got to the front line before their supplies and had to dig themselves in while they waited for the latter to arrive. The railways ensured mobility; warfare itself was not at that point in a position to do so (when it was, in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts, it meant the end, if not entirely, of the set-piece battles associated with particular locations which tended to decide the outcome of a struggle; as with the Allied campaign in Europe from D-Day to the fall of Berlin gains were incremental).
Because of the embryonic, to some extent, nature of modern war in 1914-18 the pattern it followed contrasts sharply with that of 1939-45. In the “Great War”, as it was still being called until relatively recently, both sides − the Central Powers, Germany and Austria Hungary, and the Allies consisting principally of Britain, France and Russia − were roughly evenly matched, particularly on the Western Front, until the end, despite Russia withdrawing from the conflict at the beginning of 1918 (in what was undoubtedly a practically wise, given the strain it was putting on her, as well as ideologically sound decision), the ruling Communists not wishing to carry on what they saw as a capitalist war. It took four years for the stalemate to be broken. The release of German troops in their thousands from the Eastern Front when the latter collapsed tipped the balance against the Western Allies, but they managed to win nonetheless when the cumulative effect of their own dogged resistance, America’s entry into the war, and the Allied blockade of the Channel ports Germany had seized − a crucial factor, by virtue of its crippling economic impact − along with their finally learning to use tanks and aircraft effectively, suddenly became manifest, a certain critical mass being reached. Nonetheless it was a close-run thing until as late as the summer of 1918. What happened was that Germany blinked first, though in the view of military historians such as Ian Passingham this was inevitable; they believe she could not in the long run have withstood the effects of the blockade, as well as the other factors working against her. Those factors included the lack of a reliable ally who was not bound to her purely by the alliance system and restricted by geographical considerations from being much of a help in the West. The Habsburg Empire was by this time a decaying corpse, though such was the unwieldiness of the vast but poorly led and organised Russian Army that it was still able to inflict heavy losses on her. The weakness of the Austro-Hungarians, plus the inability of Germany’s other ally Turkey to help on the Western Front for geographical reasons, offset the advantages gained when Russia pulled out of the war following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Things were very different in the second conflict, where Germany triumphed on mainland Europe at an early stage and she and her allies remained in an apparently impregnable position for 2-3 years, after which they were consistently (with one or two reverses) if gradually pushed back by Britain, America and Russia until final defeat in 1945, by when Italy had been out of the war for two years. Meanwhile, the suddenness of the German collapse in 1918, and a failure to sufficiently understand the reasons for it, led to the myth of the “stab in the back”, according to which Germany would have won if she’d only held out a bit longer but was betrayed by cowardly liberal politicians (the Jews of course had something to do it, at least that was what the Nazis maintained). Not every soldier in the war prized an end to the conflict over everything else; Germany believed herself to have been on the verge of winning and after victory the pains and deprivations would have been over anyway, with national pride satisfied into the bargain. And a young, vibrant nation like her, a relative newcomer to the game of international politics, felt particularly aggrieved when her aspirations were frustrated by first defeat and then the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles by which she was forced her to give up significant areas of her territory, along with her overseas colonies, and accept the pollarding of her armed forces. The consequences of this for future European peace were dangerous, but need not have been fatal. In the end, when combined with other factors, they were.
I will read in due course Guy.